8 PATHS TO COLLECTIVE CO-CREATION at the Betty Nansen Theater
At the Betty Nansen Theater we develop innovative working methods that have collaboration, co-creation, a cross-disciplinary aesthetic and a safe space as keywords. Read more about the collaborative methods here – who knows, you might be inspired?
What? Why? how?
At Betty Nansen Theatre we have devoted ourselves to a collective working method. This does not mean that we are a collective. We are an institutional theater that collaborates with different artists. Rather, we have developed a unique production format where elements from free group and performance collectives as long-term collective processes are drawn into the traditional hierarchical structure of institutional theater to create a hybrid between the two.
“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” – Donna Haraway
We believe in collective co-creation as a path to innovation – for society as a whole. We want to strengthen the performing arts and the ability to engage in dialogue with the audience and society. We want to create an alternative to the individual worship of our time. The performing arts are unique in that they are created and experienced collectively and offer people the opportunity to participate in living and active communities.
Therefore, we work to:
- rethink the performing arts institution as an arena for radical collective co-creation and artistic research
- change systemic conditions and traditions of power to free artists and the institution to allow for artistic development with a focus on sustainable processes and life.
We work with 8 practices of collective co-creation:
- CO-CREATION IN ALL PHASES
- EQUALITY? NO THANKS
- THE MAGIC HAPPENS ON THE FLOOR
- TIME TO TEST GENERATES COURAGE
- CLEAR FRAMES
- UNFINISHED SKETCHES? YES PLEASE
- SAFE SPACE TO BE BRAVE
- SHARE WITH THE WORLD
Photo from workshop at Pride and Predudice
© Catrine Zorn
The 8 paths
#1 CO-CREATION IN ALL PHASES
Normally, a theater performance is developed over a 5-7 week rehearsal period followed by a premiere. Before the rehearsals, the theatre’s management has curated which plays will be staged and “the creative artists” (director, playwright and scenographer) have agreed how the individual performance should be realized and conceptualized. Only once rehearsals have commenced do “the performing” artists (actors, dancers) join the process.
At Betty, work begins with an extensive trial run that begins months – sometimes years – before the premiere. We break with the tradition of the distinction between “creative and performing artists” led by a director who sits at the top of the hierarchy. Instead, the process is collective from the very start. This means that the actors and other artists, for example, the performance manager, costume designers, etc. are involved from the beginning of the process, and that everyone can develop ideas, gain access to each other’s work/sketches and develop material collectively in a series of workshops prior to rehearsals.
The radical approach to co-creation at the Betty Nansen Theater lies in the fact that this collective vision and collective co-creation is present throughout all phases – from repertoire planning to idea generation, concept development, text development, production design to performance. The theater is led by two directors, Eva Præstiin, director and producer, and Elisa Kragerup artistic director and director. It does not have a traditional dramaturgical approach in which a manager and dramaturg decide what to stage and how they should be creatively interpreted. Instead, Betty Nansen has an artistic council in which ideas for the repertoire are exchanged. The council consists of seven members from different professional groups: scenographer, director, dramaturg and researcher, choreographer, journalist and two actors.
#2 EQUALITY? NO THANKS
To enable collective co-creation, it is important to clarify from the beginning which approach to collectivity is being embraced. Is it based on a completely flat structure or something else? At the Betty Nansen Theatre, our approach to collectivity is not about everyone being equal, but about what French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls an aesthetic community. That is, co-creation between a community of strong and often opposing individuals.
The director is a leader and facilitator, but there is a high degree of co-creation and exchange between competencies and production functions. We renegotiate collectivity in the form of the heterogeneity of the participants. Differences and disagreements are emphasized over uniformity in a politics of difference. The individual’s identity, special abilities and professionalism are preserved, while at the same time opportunities are given for development, not least in cross-aesthetic constellations, where, for example, musicians and actors, scenographers and composers evolve together. In this way, the individual’s work is expanded by others in ways that no one can achieve alone.
We are inspired by philosopher and professor of feminist theory, Donna Haraway’s becoming-to-with theory (making-with rather than self-making), which is about meetings and exchanges between different types and different individual skills as the way to innovate the world.
Our experience is that collective co-creation requires facilitation. It is therefore important to appoint a facilitator in all creative processes. This will typically be the director who creates
a framework for the production and facilitates the process, as well as adapting and interpreting the material. The facilitator maintains a view over the process as a whole and the various layers and aesthetic parameters of the work: What is it that the music, scenography, text, physics should express? Towards the end of the process, the facilitator assumes a more formal role and makes the necessary decisions regarding the premiere. People are always welcome to disagree with the facilitator, but it is important to lay out in advance who has the artistic leadership and decision-making competence.
#3 THE MAGIC HAPPENS ON THE FLOOR
A powerful method of generating material collectively is improvisation. The facilitator delegates and assigns tasks to the performers. The facilitator provides a framework by assigning a common task where all performers improvise. Alternatively, the performers are split up, for example, into three groups of two, and are given the task of coming up with an improvised take on a specific scene with a short preparation time. In this way, three possibilities are generated for how a scene can be staged, which the facilitator can adapt and develop further.
The performers’ ideas are translated concretely and physically on the floor – instead of sitting at a desk and devising them. In this way, the performers gain ownership of the material, and several actors contribute to creating and playing the same character. This improvisation method is used all the way up to the premiere. During improvisation, we encourage everyone to say yes and be generous: it’s always better to give too much than too little.
#4 TIME TO TEST GENERATES COURAGE
We believe that more time is key to generating courage to test brave ideas, and that this flourishes in an artistic process, where as many people as possible engage in dialogue with each other and with the material. The process leads to an artistic work that is unique and told in a new, previously unknown, scenic language. But it takes time to learn to devise – and speak – a new language together. That is why we tailor workshops to suit the needs of the individual performance. Extra time also creates room for all voices to be heard in cross-aesthetic development processes. Developing a new physical and visual design language is difficult to do at a desk. We test ideas for physicality and scenographic resonance early on in the process. The actors are involved in this process, as they will ultimately be on the ones on stage. At introductory seminars/concept meetings, ideas and theses are developed, which are then tested one on one in in workshops with selected expertise, techniques and scenographic elements.
During the development of Animal Farm, for example, we tested the use of soil as a production element to explore whether it conveyed what we wanted and to ensure the
actors’ experiences were included. An informed decision could then be made as to what extent soil should be a large, central set design element. Holding workshops and testing ideas and materials is an expensive process only made possible by support from The Bikuben Foundation. Discovering too late in the process that a scenic element does not work is extremely challenging. Without extra time and the possibility of testing various elements, there will be a tendency to select ‘safer’ ideas.
From a workshop at Dark Spring. Foto Catrine Zorn
#5 CLEAR FRAMEWORKS
Generating material collectively requires a clear framework. Especially when so many different people and disciplines are involved in creating something new together. A core revelation for us is that workshops must be prepared thoroughly, and that there must be a good process design, a clear framework and goal that the various competencies can speak to. It is also essential to align expectations, evaluate and ensure clear role distribution. Workshop courses are tailored to the needs of the individual performance and the process design is continuously reevaluated. This means that the process design is renegotiated from production to production and from workshop to workshop as the material is generated and adapted.
#6 UNFINISHED SKETCHES? YES PLEASE
All material is shared including weird half-finished sketches and improvisations. It’s crucial that people make themselves and their material available during process. The path to the sublime goes through many bad iterations, suggestions and ideas. But joint interdisciplinary and cross-aesthetic idea generation takes the pressure off the individual, and a range of people are involved in influencing, interpreting and adapting the material. A nascent idea can grow big and beautiful if it is cultivated. Everything from filmed improvisations to mood boards is collected in a common material and sketch collection, which everyone has access to. In this way, a common language is slowly built for the production’s universe.
#7 SAFE SPACES TO BE BRAVE
The management takes responsibility for the production processes and the final performances alike. We want to create innovative works of high artistic quality, but it is equally as important to us that the works are produced both ethically and sustainably. Care is therefore a core management principle, with a focus on proper working conditions and a healthy work culture, especially for freelance employees.
When we ask for risk-taking, courage and misfires, it is important that we ourselves show the same willingness to take risks, both as people and as an institution. We try to create mutual trust between the actors by creating a safe environment in which the intuitive and playful can unfold and by emphasizing that there are no mistakes. The management creates a framework around the production, and the facilitator/director is responsible for leading the artistic process, gathering threads, identifying directions, adapting, and facilitating.
#8 SHARE WITH THE WORLD
Our ambition is to bring knowledge, documentation, and artistic research into performing arts. And convey our insights to the outside world.
For an institution, reflection, dissemination, and awareness of one’s own practice creates a community of practice internally, while simultaneously forming an external voice. We wish to create a new type of performing arts institution where intuition and method are in symbiosis. In artistic processes, work is largely intuitive, but alongside and in conjunction with the intuitive, we now work more methodically, articulating and reflecting upon how we develop our work. That knowledge feeds into the artistic space as well as in the dissemination of practice. We believe that if performing arts as a field is to have a voice both culturally and politically, then we need a language that can express our art form and its importance for society.
Photo from a workshop at Pride and Predudice
© Catrine Zorn